One million people worldwide live with lymphoma and nearly 1 000 people are diagnosed with the disease every day, yet most South Africans know very little about this type of cancer.
World Lymphoma Awareness Day, held on 15 September every year, is dedicated to raising awareness and informing the public of the disease's signs and symptoms, the treatment options available and how it affects the lives of thousands of South Africans.
Though lymphoma cancer can be a very serious and aggressive form of cancer, the prognosis does not have to be fatal, and with early detection and treatment it can be cured.
What is lymphoma?
Lymphoma is a type of blood cancer that develop in the lymphatic system, part of the body's immune system. The cancer develops when an error occurs in the production of lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell which helps fight infection, resulting in abnormal cancerous cells. (Other types of blood cancer are leukaemia - cancer of the blood - and myeloma - cancer of the bone marrow.)
Lymphoma can be divided into two main groups: Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
While both types of cancer develop in the same way, the single factor that distinguishes the two is a single type of cell - the Reed Sternberg cell. This cancerous cell type is found only in Hodgkin's Lymphoma and can be distinguished from other types of Lymphoma by the way it appears under a microscope.
Furthermore, Hodgkin's Lymphoma and non Hodgkin's Lymphoma grow and spread in different ways. If a lymphoma diagnosis is made and does not contain the Reed-Sternberg variant, the cancer can then only be Non Hodgkin's Lymphoma.
Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma occurs five times more often than Hodgkin’s disease and can be found in both children and adults. Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma also occurs in HIV-infected people and is most often associated with advanced disease.
Symptoms of lymphoma, and in particular Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma (which is the most common type of lymphoma) can be similar to flu and tuberculosis symptoms, often leading to misdiagnosis. Symptoms include unexplained fever, drenching night sweats, low energy swollen glands, coughs and breathlessness, persistent itching all over the body and weight loss. Further lymphoma-related symptoms depend on which areas of the body are affected.
Lymphomas commonly involve the lymph nodes, and so may be found where there are clusters of these, such as in the neck, groin or underarm area. Lymphoma may also occur in the brain and spinal cord, any part of the digestive tract, bone marrow, spleen, bone, liver, ovaries and testes. If lymphoma is present in a lymph node, the node enlarges to form a lump that is usually not painful.
If lymphoma occurs in the brain, symptoms may include confusion, memory loss, seizures, speech difficulties and headache, and numbness, tingling or weakness in the limbs.
It's important to note that swollen lymph nodes do not always indicate the presence of lymphoma. There are other infections and certain systemic illnesses that can also produce enlarged lymph nodes.
All lymphomas are treatable and a large portion are curable. Effectiveness of treatment depends on the particular cell characteristics of the lymphoma, its location and how much it has spread, as well as the strength of your immune system.
Lymphoma may be treated with chemotherapy whereas lymphoma involving the brain may also be treated with radiation therapy.
The voice of lymphoma
The theme for this year's Lymphoma Awareness Day is "I am the Voice of Lymphoma" - a united campaign by Campaigning for Cancer, CHOC, The Sunflower Fund, Faces of Hope Foundation, KZN Lymphoma Support Group and Roche Products (Pty) Ltd that profiles survivors of the disease and promotes early detection and treatment.
For more information on The "I am the Voice of Lymphoma" campaign, visit their Facebook page.